Measuring the unmeasurable? A critique of attempts to assess the impact of forest school

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This paper seeks to describe and critically analyse attempts to measure the impact of outdoor education sessions, specifically those designated by the term ‘forest school’. These approaches frequently adopt a formulaic view of the potential impact upon children as they seek to describe measurable outcomes from an experience that may be defined by those involved in it as “something special…. remarkable…. astounding” (Murray, 2003, p.8) but which may ultimately, elusively, be ‘unmeasurable’. Within the context of school, perceived benefits/outcomes for pupils must be justified in rigorous educational terms, and practitioners may look towards the evidence provided by research impact studies. Limited, unimaginative and often anecdotal outcomes from such studies may in fact have the effect of weakening the case for effective forest school provision. The complex origins of forest school have not entailed firm theoretical underpinnings. Leather argues that UK forest school practice, though it purports to be inspired by Danish traditions, is but weakly derived from well-established Scandinavian concepts relating to the spiritual, moral and physical value of the outdoor experience (Leather, 2012). Instead, a traditional educational/social intervention model underpins current forest school practice. However, the concept of intervention implies measurable outcomes, and thus researchers are compelled to look for the ‘countable’, even though the elusive ‘impact’ may not in fact fall into the countable category. A critical examination is made of one early study, which has been particularly influential in communicating the perceived benefits of Forest School programmes for young children (Murray, 2003; Murray and O’Brien, 2005; O’Brien and Murray, 2007). It is argued that the influential reach of this particular study is surprising, given the relatively thin theoretical foundations upon which it is based. Overall the methodology built into this impact evaluation (and many like it) suffers from cognitive bias; namely, confirmation bias. Possibly better described as the observer-expectancy effect (or, subjective validation), tasking the stakeholders with setting the remit in advance for the impact evaluation raises questions of validity. Methodological approaches are evaluated in terms of focused data gathering and analysis, and issues of objectivity are explored. It is suggested that one predominant method for recording children’s interactions (adult observations) has reduced the quality of the interpretive data. Children’s voices are often silent in such studies and a pre-structured template shapes and limits responses from practitioner observers. In summary, although many of the reported benefits of forest school seem plausible, they are but thinly documented and lack the sensory richness of lived experience. It is suggested that, overall, dominant methodologies do little to strengthen the case for forest school either as an educational intervention or a holistic pedagogical practice. An evaluation of the small number of more recent studies which have systematically investigated particular features of children’s language use within the context of forest school programmes are suggested as a way forward (Richardson, 2014; Richardson and Murray, 2016; Waters, 2011). A pilot study carried out by the author during an early phase of doctoral study is presented as a possible model for consideration. It is suggested that future approaches to evaluating forest school must entail a clearer faithfulness towards systematic, qualitative data collection and that this, it is suggested, may strengthen the validity of research studies with potential subsequent influence on policy and practice.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusUnpublished - 11 Sept 2019
EventBERA Conference 2019 - University of Manchester, Manchester, United Kingdom
Duration: 10 Sept 201913 Sept 2019


ConferenceBERA Conference 2019
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom
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